Language Learning Tip: It’s *not* all about the vocab

By | July 7, 2022

Sometimes when I see a thread flying by on Twitter and feel strongly towards the subject matter I will consider chiming in, but the problem is that trying to present a proper counter-argument on Twitter can be tricky. Sure, you can use a bunch of Tweets, but it gets hard to read, and also directly calling out someone can lead to awkward interactions.

So when I recently read somebody saying something similar to “Vocab is what is lacking for the majority of people with reading problems”, I decided to just keep quiet for the time being, thinking I would just forget about it. But it sat in the back of my mind, refusing to fade away, so I decided to get it down in an article and out of my mind so I can focus better on other things. 

Figuring out where best to focus one’s energies when studying a foreign language is a topic I have touched on several times before, but it’s so important that I think it will be good to address it freshly in this post.

The basic premise of this person’s tweet (if I understood it correctly) is that people who have problems reading text in a foreign language need to do more focused study that involves vocabulary words. I actually do agree that not understanding words *is* one of the main problems of reading difficulties, however I don’t feel that focusing on studying vocab words (using systems like Anki or studying lists of vocab words in any other form) is a good use of a language learner’s time, with a few exceptions.

Basically when you start reading a text and realize you have no idea what is going on, there is a few potential problems:

  1. You don’t have a good grasp of basic grammar principles. For Japanese, that boils down to things like word order, particles, and verb conjugation. Also not being used to word omission (subjects, objects, etc.) can contribute to this.
  2. You don’t know certain words or expressions.
  3. You know all of the above, but lack the domain context to see the big picture.

If you have only been studying Japanese a few weeks (or even months), then I feel #1 is likely to be your biggest problem, and I would focus your energies here first (though you can still learn vocab words in parallel). The unique thing with this case is that it is really hard to look up some of these things in the middle of reading, for example the meaning of a particle (which can easily have 5-10 meanings). And if you don’t know enough grammar basics to separate out the words, then you can’t even really use a dictionary effectively.

For #2, the main problem we are focusing on this article, you can do one of three things:

  • [option a] Look up all (or a fraction of) the words you don’t know in a dictionary, and try to get through the text. I have done this for entire novels, and while it was tedious I still enjoyed it. 
  • [option b] Just give up (and potentially find something that is easier)
  • [option c] Give up (or take a break) and focus on “learning vocabulary”

My problem with asking someone to “learn vocabulary” (option c) is that it is such a vague goal that will not be likely to yield good results if you are trying to boost your vocabulary enough to read a certain text. You can pick any type of vocab list you want, but it isn’t likely to match up perfectly with the words you are reading (although there are some sites and apps that can help you with this with a limited set of stories, like Kanshudo)

But if your goal is to read a certain book, then (assuming you have the grammar foundation) you can simply do “option a” above, meaning you end up looking up a bunch of words, and eventually get through the book. I don’t think there is anything wrong with giving up and finding an easier text (option b), such that the new text has less unfamiliar words. If you are working on learning to read fiction, you can just try to find books written for a lower reading level/age.

Now my real problem with spending much of your time on learning vocabulary lists is that usually that involves learning the words or expressions out of context. You can look at this in terms of eating vitamins in pill form instead of eating the vitamins as they naturally appear in food (I’m not a nutritionist so I can’t say how accurate this parallel is, but it seems pretty appropriate.)

Basically when you look a word inside of a piece of real text, you have context about what you have read so far, context about the sentence, paragraph, the character talking or thinking, whatever. If you look at a word on a vocab list––or some app or website that is helping you practice memorization of words––generally you won’t have much, if any context like this.

At first, learning words via word-to-definition memorization may seem great, but the problem is not only that you lack the context to really enrich your knowledge of the word, but you are thinking in your native language, a habit you want to eventually get out of (by thinking, for example ほん equals ‘book’”)

But the real endgame here, the thing that helps you become truly fluent, is being able to learn to use context and other clues to guess the meaning of a word with reasonable accuracy. In Japanese there are many things, including particles (that help tell you how a word is used), the alphabet the words are written in (katakana hints at a foreign word or an onomatopoeia, etc.), the word order, just to name a few. If a word is written in kanji you can often guess the meaning if you know the meanings of each kanji used, and with enough experience you can even do that with sounds (though some sounds map to many kanji, so there is a lot of guesswork involved).

The more you are hammering away at flash cards (or the digital equivalent), the less time you are spending building a wealth of knowledge about each word, and the less time you are training your skills to guess a word’s meaning.

As a side point, I am not saying that you should never use vocabulary lists. For certain cases, like those new to a language (say the first few months), or when you start getting into a new domain (say you want to work in Japan in the car industry, so you research car terms, etc.), learning vocab words in-vitro can reap rewards. But I think for many language learners, there can be an over-emphasis on trying to memorize stuff as opposed to just plowing through texts.

As someone who learned basic Japanese vocabulary and grammar over two decades ago, sometimes I worry that my suggestions do not take into consideration what it is like for beginner students. But over time I have been gradually changing what type of texts I consume, and I actually feel this gives me a good feeling of what it’s like starting over.

When I first started I had a lot of trouble reading novels made for adults, and eventually I got to the point where it was much less of a burden to read through the average novel without constantly looking up words (though I still look up words now and then). However, in the last few years I have switched to focusing more on listening to audio narrations of classic works (at least 50-70 years old). This meant that many of the words were those I had never heard before (not to mention I didn’t have kanji to rely on, which were a great help to guessing word meanings), and I had to go back to constantly guessing words and do my best to understand given limited information. While it has been frustrating at times, overall I have trained my context-guessing skills and really noticed how much better I can pick things up. (Listening to audio narrations also allows me to focus a bit more on hearing and remembering intonations, and there are even a few cases when I can tell the meaning just from the intonation. Having said that, I don’t recommend beginner students focus too much on intonation.)

Another reason I de-emphasize raw memorization is that I think the majority of people have a pretty high rate of forgetting, which means you have to keep going back to the memorization tool or list to refresh your memory (and that takes extra time). On the other hand, if you have built up good inference skills, you can use those to try and guess the meaning, as opposed to just admitting you forgot the word or having to look it up again.

The process of meaning inference itself requires close engagement with the text because you are not just guessing and then being told you are right or wrong (like the traditional test model). Rather, you start with a minimal amount of information and as you read/listen to more of the text you get additional information. Sometimes it can take a few minutes to guess a word’s meaning. And if you make it to the end of the text (or a chapter), there is nothing wrong with checking a dictionary for words you have stuck in your head, those that you heard multiple times that seemed critical to the story or discussion in question. Seeing the meaning will give you a mini “Eureka!” moment since you had been struggling with that word for so long, as opposed to just looking it up right away when you first come across it.

As a final note, if you really must use vocabulary lists, I would suggest focusing on those that you created yourself based on unfamiliar words you found in some text or other source. Try to avoid one-word definitions, and instead put in a bunch of context about the word (“was used in a really formal document”, “spoken by an ancient wizard”, etc.) to try and maintain the extra context about each word. But even with this method, I wouldn’t spend more than 10-20% of your time reviewing vocabulary lists.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider checking out one of my books, “Language Motivation: Tips and inspirations for language learning” where I talk about similar topics:

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